Reading is part of communication and, alongside arithmetic and writing, is the most important cultural skill. Even in the age of the Internet, reading is indispensable; you need excellent reading skills to find proper information. But reading (and writing) is also a privileged skill. People without access to even basic education are denied access to most parts of the world out there. By improving your reading (and writing) skills, you're also getting better at communicating with others - no matter the language.
Children learn and speak a language according to their own rules and in a different way than adults. However, when and how quickly a child learns to speak is very different. But speech and language lessons should already start in the womb, where the unborn baby hears and responds to familiar voices. After birth, the newborn learns a language by listening to the parent's language's basic and distinct sounds. Even though the young child is probably not able to read himself, having his parents read books to him increases the exposure to a language. Studies have shown that reading to babies starting at eight months old has a significant impact on early language development. It stimulates the child's imagination, helps him deal with various emotions, and teaches him how to express his feelings. But children must hear new words in grammatically correct sentences to learn a language efficiently.
It is essential to differentiate between two main aspects of reading: word recognition and comprehension. Word recognition is knowing how a word is pronounced and spelled, whereas word comprehension is about interpreting the meaning of a text. Although word recognition and comprehension are often rated separately, they do influence one another a lot in a so-called bidirectional way. Meaning, an extensive vocabulary contributes directly to growth in word recognition, and vice versa, increasing your skills in word recognition predicts the rate of vocabulary growth.
Various factors influence the ability to read and understand texts. All these factors together make up how quickly you can read and process a text in your language. But our brain is an extremely efficient worker: words that it already knows are automatically "recognized" and then immediately assigned to what is already known. So if you have an extensive and elaborate vocabulary, you can read relatively quickly. Of course, the text itself also determines how quickly you can read and grasp the content. For example, a children's book with counting rhymes can be read and understood more quickly than a complicated essay about quantum mechanics. Being already familiar with a particular topic also helps to understand a text on that specific subject, compared to something entirely unknown to us. Another influencing factor that should not be underestimated is the motivation of the reader. Like back in school, when you had to read that one specific book, you couldn't stand, even though the story might have been relatively straightforward, took a much longer time to comprehend, and hence to finish. The favorite book, however, was often finished too quickly.
Reading literally changes your mind, as it involves a complex network of circuits and signals in the brain. As your reading ability matures, those networks get more substantial and more advanced. You're not only able to train your brain by reading, but according to a study by the neuroscientist William Jagust from the University of California, Berkeley, mental stimulation like reading, solving puzzles, or doing any other sort of mental activity even helps to prevent Alzheimer's. Meaning, doing this regularly you'll remain mentally fit and productive even in older age.
Every time you read a book, a magazine, essay, or any other text, you get confronted with new words or phrases. So the more you read, the better you can express yourself. Being articulate and well-spoken is a strong "soft-skill." Especially reading aloud improves your pronunciation and the feeling for a language, even if it's your mother tongue. Working on a clear pronunciation naturally boosts your confidence and hence helps you to speak in public.
Reading books is also indispensable for learning new languages, as non-native speakers gain exposure to words used in context, which improves their speaking and writing fluency. Books can paint pictures that a teacher probably never can – children's books are especially good at this. The colorful illustrations used in those books affect the visual cortex of the brain. In combination with the particular word (f.e. seeing a picture of a young boy in a yellow raincoat jumping into a puddle of mud next to the Spanish word "saltar" (jump)), those images make the learning process much more memorable.
If you aren't an avid reader already, give it a shot. To someone who's never truly read a great piece, reading might seem dull and boring. But with a little time, you might enjoy or even love reading as well. And with all of the amazing benefits of reading, it is definitely worth the time.
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